A Slow Train or Three Across Nigeria (8 of 9)


Sunday

With stops too, so as expected, we do not reach Kaduna around midnight, but after sunrise. The country seems greener; since Bauchi there has been much less dust. At the station, the vendors in the platform shelter seem much as before but there are few people about to sustain them. I have breakfast on rice with curry, thinking of the Jamil’s yoghurt but am sure that it will not be open early on a Sunday. Rice is at a premium, so N20 for this meal, and although I saw some chunks lurking in the beef stew, I chickened out. Some omnivore I!

I find some railwaymen who say that the engine is being maintained, and could be back at any moment, but I have my doubts on this, so after a few minutes I hasten out to the station market area. Alas, as feared, almost every stall is closed. An alley eatery is starting business, a tailor is sewing, but otherwise the alley’s shacks are closed. A nearby shop fellow says that the morning delivery is at nine; eight-thirty is too early, so I console myself with a small packet of peanuts from another stall holder.

Back to the station, to observe no change. An engine at the head of an adjacent goods train still idles; I don’t know if it is our engine on shunt duty or what. If it is not ours, there is no other engine in sight. At 8:50 there come some toots, and the engine leaves the wagons behind. Meanwhile, some furniture is being loaded onto our front (as was the rear) goods van, with no sign of urgency. And no surprise: at ten there is still no sign of an engine, nor has the Jamil opened and at 10:20 we head back south, so no yoghurt for me.

Onwards over more burnt savannah, more smoke in the air. Around four-thirty we enter Minna, the obvious place to seek some supper. Alas, no tomatoes were on sale here (despite the fruit vendors seen as we approached the station), so the spring onions will have to wait a bit longer. And again, there is no water from the station’s tap. We continue at six, past a derailment (but not an especially well-wrecked one) and into the sunset.

Monday

Another night with moves and stops, but this time with the added extra of a ticket check at 3:45, damnit. Who would try to sneak onto this conveyance? Am I a stranger to this train still? Ah well, perhaps there was a change of staff.

The day starts with diffuse light through the smoke haze. Some stands of trees could now be called “forest” and in open areas, green ground cover can be seen, also green leaves on the trees but most leaves are yellow, brown, or red and there are plenty of burnt-over areas.

At eight-thirty we cross a big river to arrive at Jebba station, south of the Niger River at last. On display at the station is a piece of the engine from a sunk boat where a plaque describes the latest in a string of disasters that prompted the building of the railway line. Breakfast is on curried fish for a change, but despite the proximity of a great river, there is no water on the station. So I buy some plastic bags of drinking water from a kid (their cry is “Drink water!” Just so) and use the remnant of the tap water for a wash, and then wash my handkerchief, and facecloth, which has accumulated much dirt. Indeed, there is not enough water to get it all out.

This is only a brief stop, as we roll at 8:50, past scorched fields with scorched shrubs and smouldering trees. However at 11:30 we stop at Lanau, with engine trouble, going by the billowing smoke and revving from the engine. At 11:40 we lurch forward, and stop. On the station there is no water, and there are no shops nearby, but there is a blackboard with the uplifting message “Travelling by rail is safe, exciting and comfortable”. Soon, we move on for more safe excitement in comfort, but at 2:35 we stop in nowhere, the engine idling fast then slow. More trouble? Maybe not as we continue after ten minutes, past a herd of cattle, the herdsman in a conical hat.

Then at 3:35 we grind to a halt (from all of twenty m.p.h.) and our engine stops while a fellow runs on ahead with a red flag. At 3:45 it restarts, with many revvings; we move a foot, stop, wait, toot, and lurch on, past a modern electric trackside signal, its wires all hanging out unconnected.

By evening we’re at Offa, it is fish curry for dinner again. Yet again, there is no water at the station. The train moves backwards; again a change of direction? No, we stop after a dozen yards and our rear goods van is detached. We’re being shunted about by our engine this time. Supposedly, the delay now is that our engine has no headlamp. Meanwhile, I wash my grimy self and clothes, having gone with a fellow passenger to fetch water from a public supply about two hundred yards away along a twisting route through back yards and along narrow streets. This must be the only local water source, as people are converging upon the tap from all directions clutching various water containers.

All my washing is soon completed, and we’re still here at eight p.m. It is not likely that we will reach Lagos this night, so snooze time begins. Around ten an extraordinary sequence of lurches, and bangings beneath my carriage begins, until 10:45. We have recovered our baggage van, plus the noisy generator, and now it is the station that is unlit. An engine has been audible in the distance all along (story B is that it has gone to refuel) and now it makes passes back and forth along a parallel track, with headlight glaring (c.f. story A: no headlight), as ever with many toots. None of these activities result in our leaving, at least until 11:30, and soon we’re making good speed.

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